Better Understanding Jose Fernandez

As good as Jose Fernandez is, there still exists a critical angle. Fernandez, of course, pitches for the Marlins, and the Marlins get a lot of things wrong. The Internet usually doesn’t let those things go by unacknowledged, and the Marlins, this year, placed Fernandez on their opening-day roster. Fernandez was coming straight from Single-A, and had the Marlins waited even just a couple weeks, they could’ve preserved an extra year of team control. Instead, Fernandez is due to become a free agent in five years, instead of six. Viewed objectively, viewed just on paper, that decision is needlessly wasteful. The Marlins had no plans to contend. Fernandez didn’t need to be up that quick.

But there’s no sense in letting that dominate the conversation, because let’s revisit the beginning of that paragraph: “As good as Jose Fernandez is.” Fernandez just, and I mean just turned 21, and he’s outstanding. It’s fine to talk about contracts and service time, and those details are important, but that’s not nearly as interesting as on-field performance. Though Matt Harvey‘s drawn more of the headlines, Fernandez has more quietly exceeded most reasonable expectations, and in the interest of better appreciating what he’s done, I thought we could take a few minutes to dig in. Let’s go beyond “Jose Fernandez is great.” What are some of his defining characteristics?

Aside from his age, of course. This is technically Fernandez’s age-20 season. He’s coming up on 130 innings pitched. The last guy to throw so much at such a young age was Rick Porcello in 2009. Before that, Felix Hernandez in 2006. Before that, Zack Greinke in 2004. Fernandez is the seventh 20-year-old pitcher to break 125 innings in the major leagues since 1987. While not unprecedented, this experience is rare, and we might learn a thing or two about the nature of pitching development and the necessity of climbing through all the minors when a guy’s arm has the talent. That’s a different post and study altogether. How about some things we can learn about Jose Fernandez, specifically?

He’s been getting better

A graph that you, the FanGraphs reader, will easily understand:


This is a pretty simple trend to explain, if indeed it is a legitimate trend. Fernandez went from Single-A to spring training to the major leagues, and one would assume there would be an adjustment period. True, hitters would have to adjust to Fernandez just as Fernandez would have to adjust to hitters, but it makes sense that a young pitcher might not hit the ground running. Fernandez hit the ground jogging, and since then he’s only picked up speed.

The last 30 days, Fernandez has struck out a third of all of the batters he’s faced. That’s the highest strikeout rate in baseball, among starters, with Tim Lincecum more than two percentage points behind. Over that span, Fernandez’s ERA- has been 55. His FIP- and xFIP- have both been 61. Fernandez, basically, has been one of baseball’s very best pitchers, and this is what he was doing on August 5, 2012. Fernandez has adjusted. I’m sure there are things he could still do better, but now it’s on the hitters to figure out Fernandez. He’s in a groove, and when Jose Fernandez is in a groove, he’s indistinguishable from any other Cy Young candidate.

He’s been getting a little bit screwed

Also, Fernandez has done what he’s done while pitching to a smaller-than-average strike zone. According to my own metrics, whipped up from FanGraphs statistics, the Marlins have been the worst team in baseball in terms of pitch-framing. That doesn’t apply to everybody the same across the board, but, 107 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings. By my numbers, in terms of difference between strikes and expected strikes per game, Fernandez has thrown to the second-smallest zone, ahead only of Miguel Gonzalez, by very little.

Over at StatCorner, Matthew Carruth publishes some interesting and related data. Carruth sets his own strike zone based on what umpires actually call. A Fernandez breakdown:

  • Fernandez: 18% in-zone balls
  • NL Average: 14% in-zone balls
  • Fernandez: 5.7% out-of-zone strikes
  • NL Average: 7.2% out-of-zone strikes

Framing numbers do not like Miguel Olivo, or Jeff Mathis, or Rob Brantly, at least not in 2013. From Texas Leaguers, a couple images. Fernandez’s called strike zone against righties:


Fernandez’s called strike zone against lefties:


Too many pitches in the zone have gone for balls. People complain about the outside “lefty” strike, because it really shouldn’t exist, but it does, except not really for Fernandez. What we don’t know is to what extent Fernandez himself is responsible for this, because he’s probably trickier to catch than a guy with worse stuff, but Harvey, for example, is at 15% in-zone balls. Shelby Miller is at 10% in-zone balls and 8.5% out-of-zone strikes. Fernandez has thrown better than two-thirds of his pitches for strikes overall, and that’s despite infrequently getting the benefit of the doubt from the umpire. It stands to reason he’d look even better with an average receiver. It stands further to reason he’d look even better with a *good* receiver. Jose Fernandez could’ve been pitching ahead more often.

He’s been pounding the zone against righties

Oftentimes, when you have a young pitcher with quality stuff, he’ll show too much location inconsistency, or he’ll try too hard to rack up strikeouts. Young and talented pitchers frequently end up being inefficient, at least until they learn better. Inefficiency is not a problem of Fernandez’s, and especially not against same-handed hitters. Here are the top strike rates against righties, out of everyone who’s faced at least 150 righties:

  1. Kevin Slowey, 72.1% strikes
  2. Jose Fernandez, 71.5%
  3. Cliff Lee, 71.2%
  4. Bartolo Colon, 70.5%
  5. Hisashi Iwakuma, 70.3%

Fernandez is behind only a teammate, a teammate long known for his ability to stay inside the strike zone, and unlike said teammate, Fernandez also throws wicked stuff that’s hard to hit. Against righties, Fernandez is basically a two-pitch pitcher, but he has good command of both and he’s able to keep hitters on the defensive by not letting them settle into hitter-friendly counts. On this list, barely-21-year-old Jose Fernandez out-ranks Cliff Lee. Just kind of one of those things that needed to be pointed out again.

He’s been differently effective against lefties

As is usually the case with righties, Fernandez has struck out fewer lefties, and he’s walked more. He hasn’t been quite as good at consistently throwing strikes, not that his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.3 is in any way subpar. But when your strikeout and walk numbers are worse, there’s one way to compensate. Against lefties, Fernandez has generated way more groundballs, limiting dinger opportunities. So far, 265 pitchers have allowed at least 50 balls in play against righties and lefties alike. Here are the biggest gains in groundball rate against lefties:

  1. Aaron Loup, +34.0%
  2. Tony Cingrani, +30.2%
  3. Drew Smyly, +25.3%
  4. Adam Ottavino, +22.2%
  5. Jose Fernandez, +22.2%

Some of the time, Fernandez is a pretty extreme fly-baller. Some of the time, he’s kept the infield busy, and as a consequence, his xFIP platoon split is just 48 points. His wOBA platoon split is just 12 points. Righties have put his fastball and curveball into the air. Lefties have slammed them into the ground. It’s not an unusual technique, to get opposite-handed hitters to keep the ball down, but Fernandez has done it to an extreme degree, and it’s obviously worked well for him. He is, at this point, an unusually well-rounded 21-year-old starter. In a lot of ways he pitches like a well-polished 31-year-old starter, except with a fastball in the mid- to high-90s.

There are things that Jose Fernandez still doesn’t do as well as he’d probably like. There are things that Mariano Rivera still doesn’t do as well as he’d probably like. There’s no such thing as a perfect pitcher, but there are pitchers who’re closer to perfection than others, and it’s hard to see how Fernandez could’ve worked out any better. This has been a dream season, and quite possibly the beginning of a long dream career.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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